Letter 17: Song learning

Problem dear sir,
I am a conceptual artist living in Marseille France. I am currently exploring the connections (frequency, pitch, song structure etc...) between certain birdsongs and cellular phone sounds. For my project I would like to teach a bird to sing a cellular phone melody. I had been recommended the european goldfinch by some, the canary by others. Now, I've read that the zebra finch can learn other birds' songs ... is this true and do you think it can be extended to learning a synthetic song such as a cellular phone sound ? I must say, I've never heard a zebra finch make anyhting other than squeaking sounds ...

Also, to conclude, to what extent is the impregnation period important ? What is the impregnation period for a zebra finch ?

Than you in advance for your reply.
francesco finizio

Comment Dear Francesco, first of all I must protest against your impression that Zebra Finches can only produce "squeaking sounds" – have you never heard a courting male? ;-)

I doubt that Zebra Finches can really "learn" such sounds:
It is true that they are influenced during what you call their "impregnation period" (I know the term "imprinting period"): On the ZF Info news page of my website you can read a short article of 16 Nov, 1999 on "Song learning by the radio" reporting that Zebra Finches can learn their specific songs by the radio or a cassette recorder, i. e. without the bodily presence of one of the parents – even if with an inferior song quality. The quality of a cellular phone melody would suffer even more, and a Zebra Finch which survives hand-feeding (most of them don't) would never be a happy Zebra Finch.

Genuine 'learning' in the true meaning of the word however requires a certain level of "intelligence", something Zebra Finches are less blessed with than other, usually bigger birds (thrushes, starlings, and especially parrots). Please have a look at the hyperlinks on my website, e.g. "Learning and Song Production in the Zebra Finch".

The impregnation period reaches to the time when they are weaned and independent (after the 4th week) or until the completed 7th week respectively: The impregnation (imprinting) is completed by the end of the 4th week, but in the following three weeks Zebra Finches experience a "sensitive period" in which their impregnation can still be changed, i. e. focussed on another species.

Hans-Jürgen Martin

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